- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Smithsonian Institution, that exalted entity, has appeared anything but dignified in recent months. The institution’s president, Lawrence Small, resigned in March amid controversy over his million-dollar expense accounts and “Dom Perignon lifestyle,” as Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, described it.

In May came the resignation of Gary Beer, the chief executive officer of Smithsonian Business Ventures, whose expenses were also judged exceedingly lavish. Mr. Beer had helped broker a controversial deal with Showtime that gave the network nearly exclusive access to the institution’s collections, much to the dismay of filmmakers around the country.

Many have come to view the shakeup as a backlash against Mr. Small’s effort to introduce corporate-style management to the Smithsonian, highlighting the institution’s uncomfortable existence as a public/private hybrid. (The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its funding from Congress and the rest from fundraising and money-making endeavors.) The institution is indeed facing something of an existential crisis. How can it best pursue its mission? And can it embrace corporate practices without losing its soul?

Heather Ewing’s “The Lost World of James Smithson” comes, therefore, at an opportune moment. The founder of the Smithsonian, Smithson was an English chemist who left about $500,000 of his fortune to create in America “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”

This much we know. Much of the rest of Smithson’s story literally went up in smoke when the Smithsonian Castle caught fire in 1865. Smithson’s manuscripts, correspondence, travel diaries and data from his experiments, as well as thermometers, blowpipes and other instruments, all perished in the blaze.

What survived was the mere outline of a life. But Ms. Ewing sifted through archives in Europe and tracked down the diaries of Smithson’s friends, even studied the notes the chemist penciled into the margins of his books, attempting to find Smithson’s buried essence, his humanity.

This she uncovers rather splendidly in her biography, which grapples with the question of why Smithson left his fortune to America, a country he had never visited. As the Smithsonian struggles to define its future course, “The Lost World of James Smithson” is indispensable reading, delving as it does into the institution’s roots and the principles upon which it was founded.

Smithson was born in either 1764 or 1765, the result of an affair between Elizabeth Macie, a widow, and Hugh Smithson, a powerful figure in Georgian England who became the first Duke of Northumberland. As a result, Smithson had connections to England’s inner circle of prestige and royalty, but as an illegitimate child he never could fully belong.

This was especially evident when he enrolled at Oxford University and left the space reserved for his father’s name blank. It was an extraordinarily rare omission that led many of his classmates to gossip about his lineage.

At Oxford, Smithson embraced the study of chemistry, a field that was just beginning to blossom. He was a master at using the blowpipe, a device that helped analyze mineral samples, and he was accepted into the Royal Society at 22, becoming its youngest member.

Yet for all of his scientific achievement — Smithson discovered the mineral now known as smithsonite — he never relinquished his innate need to climb the social ladder. The tension between these two competing forces plagued Smithson throughout his life, argues Ms. Ewing:

Smithson wanted to be valued as a real contributor to knowledge. He was busily cultivating a network of collaborators and colleagues, he was building a comprehensive mineral cabinet, and he was working to the point of exhaustion in his laboratory. But, unable to relinquish his deep-seated need for recognition as the son of the Duke of Northumberland, he remained attentive first of all to presenting himself as a well-born gentleman and patron.”

This is the first book by Ms. Ewing, an architectural historian who once worked at the Smithsonian. It is an engaging read with its share of unexpected twists: The story of the French policeman who mistakenly took Smithson for a spy, for example, or the chemist’s near death in a Hamburg prison (“vibrating between existence & the tomb”) during the Napoleonic wars.

But the book’s greatest strength is how Ms. Ewing places Smithson’s life in detailed historical context. In the wake of the Enlightenment, advances in chemistry were laying the foundation for the modern age. Smithson believed that scientific discoveries should not be bound by national interests but should benefit all mankind — a belief that helps explain his gift to America. (The other motivation, Ms. Ewing makes clear, was that Smithson had a falling out with the Royal Society, the details of which are probably lost to history.)

Smithson’s bequest exemplified the faith that he and his circle shared in science as a vehicle for progress and enlightenment — and the place that America occupied in the imagination,” she writes. “The future they imagined was one in which talent and industry would be rewarded above all else, where the increase and diffusion of knowledge would bring society to a state of happiness and prosperity.”

Two decades passed from when Smithson wrote his will to when the Smithsonian Institution was founded, and Ms. Ewing describes the fortuitous events that turned a rather vague phrase — the “diffusion of knowledge” — into the august entity we know today. Smithson had stipulated, for example, that his nephew should be his primary beneficiary if the nephew had children. Had that happened, Smithson’s grand bequest to America would have been relegated “to an amusing family anecdote about quirky old uncle James.”

So what would Smithson have thought about the Smithsonian’s current troubles? Certainly he would have understood the institution’s inherent struggle between its public and private nature, between its profit-making and scientific endeavors. Smithson, after all, spent much of his life balancing his aristocratic aspirations with his scientific research.

In the end, though, what is most striking about Smithson’s life is his idealism. It is true that he would have been a mere footnote in history had he not made his bequest (which was indeed motivated by his desire for posterity), but he was nevertheless sincere in his dedication to the study of chemistry.

As the Smithsonian moves forward, this is a lesson worth remembering. The institution should not let its profit-making endeavors detract from its raison d’etre: Scientific research that helps explain the world around us.

Eric Wills is a writer in Washington, DC.



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